Colorist Sam Daley has done two feature films with DP Alexis Zabe: the highly acclaimed The Florida Project and the Sundance 2018 pick Tyrel. Both projects were graded at Technicolor PostWorks in New York.
For The Florida Project, which netted Willem Dafoe multiple best supporting actor nominations, including an Oscar nomination, director and co-writer Sean Baker hired Daley and Zabe trusted Baker’s choice. “I strive to create a calm, easy atmosphere — there’s not a lot of stress, ego or pressure,” says Daley. “Alexis is like a Zen master. He knows the essence of what’s needed and how to achieve it, so we meshed nicely in the DI theater.”
“It was a great pleasure working with Sam on both projects,” says Zabe. “He was amazing in the way he handled the creative and technical aspects of color, and he managed to create a very harmonious dynamic in the grading room with all the social interactions with the director and the producers. It was all very peaceful and calm, no rush, no hurry — it was about doing things right not at a forced pace.”
Daley (pictured) notes that the two features “couldn’t have been more different” in their image capture although Zabe shot both films anamorphic. The Florida Project was shot almost exclusively on 35mm film, “with a combination of very composed shots and Steadicam for static images and fluid motion,” Daley says. Tyrel, directed by Sebastian Silva, is the story of an African-American’s awkward weekend with a friend’s all-white buddies in a Catskills cabin. It was shot largely handheld with a Sony a7S DSLR camera.
“It was a pleasant surprise to get a film job,” Daley says of The Florida Project. “It was beautiful film, too; Alexis shot low-ASA Kodak film so all the bright sun of Florida in summer really saturated the color. There was no need for me to push it; I took what was there and dialed it up a click so it would feel more cinematic. Alexis gets it in camera, his intent is there. My job is to bring it out, not create what’s not there to begin with.”
Zabe believes that as a cinematographer, “half my job is on set and the other half is in the DI room. I don’t distinguish the DI from the photography: It’s as important as what I do on set.”
The DI theater is “where emotions get fine tuned,” he explains. “It’s about taking color to a place that’s at the service of the story. It’s layering subtleties of the story, building more layers of significance on top of the performances, the sound, the words.”
Using 35mm film for The Florida Project took Zabe back to “the old-school way of dealing with the elements of surprise and the variables of the photo-chemical process. I told Sam about the decisions I made on the shooting end, and he just completely got it. Color had to walk the fine line of the naïve, colorful dreamy way in which the child Moonee sees the world and the more harsh reality of the world. Sam totally got it.”
Tyrel was shot in upstate New York in winter with a script that left room for improvisation and felt “very real and conversational,” says Daley. “Alexis shot with all practical lighting; the mirrorless camera was incredible at capturing detail in low light. I had to take the digital edge off it and make it more film-like. And it’s a noisy camera, so I used the Neat Video plug-in to do noise reduction on the entire film and added a new layer of Resolve grain on top for a consistent texture.”
“Sam was great at working with a super-compressed digital image; he pulled quite a few aces out of his sleeve to do some interesting digital tricks and pull information almost out of nowhere,” says Zabe. “He’d noise reduce and layer the same clip two or three times with different algorithms to bring out details in the low or mid-end.
“The reason I chose the a7S camera was its low-light sensitivity. There were scenes lit entirely by a car dashboard light — the a7S was the only camera that could do that.”
Daley used Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio 12.5 for both features. “For The Florida Project I had to rethink a few things and merge old and new workflows since I was dealing with film, two type of digital video and VFX shots on digital video,” he explains. “Resolve gave me the flexibility to fly in all the last-minute film scans and VFX as they came in. I’d drop them in at lunchtime then move on.”
Daley emphasizes that it’s the chemistry between the colorist and DP that “can’t be planned for. I didn’t get to meet Alexis until day one of the DI for The Florida Project so he put a lot of faith in the director’s decision to hire me. During a lull in the grading session, he pulled out a tiny pocket microscope to look at the pigment in the Technicolor logo on the stationery. That’s when I knew we’d get along just fine. Alexis sees the world the way I’d like to; he sees beautiful images everywhere, even on just a notepad.”